True, it has meatballs, assertively flavored with garlic and browned in hot oil. And yes, they finish cooking in a savory, brick-red tomato sauce. But that’s where the similarities end. Because these are summer meatballs.
The traditional dish, to my mind, is an ideal winter companion. A cozy mix of canned tomatoes and olive oil bubbling leisurely on the stove, it’s perfect to sit close by when it’s chilly out, as warming as a woolly turtleneck.
Think of this version as meatballs all decked out in their resort wear. Made from fresh summer tomatoes that are only briefly cooked, the sauce stays juicy and bright — and making it won’t heat up your kitchen. What the dish loses in long-cooked marinara richness, it more than makes up for in sweetness, tang and a fragrant touch of spice.
The sweetness comes from seasonal tomatoes so ripe they threaten to burst in your bag on the way home from the market. But you could just as easily use those overripe tomatoes weeping discreetly on your countertop. Because the sauce is cooked so quickly, thin-skinned beefsteaks and heirlooms work better than dense grape and plum tomatoes, which take longer to break down. If you can get a mix of yellow, red and purple tomatoes, your sauce will be pretty, too.
There’s garlic in the meatballs, but not in the sauce, where I substitute grated ginger for a sharper pungency. There’s also cumin, cilantro and lime juice, taking this far out of Italian American territory. No one will mistake this zesty, light dish for the heartier traditional version.
Meatballs are flexible by definition, and these are no exception. You can use any kind of ground meat here: pork, turkey, beef, chicken, lamb, vegan meat. Just try not to roll the balls too tightly. Leaving some air in the mix is one key to a buoyant texture. The other is using panko bread crumbs, which have a light, feathery texture that contributes to their delicacy.
I love these meatballs served over rice or with crusty bread to catch the zippy sauce. But, then again, a little spaghetti never did a plate of meatballs any harm.